WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Humbug

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Humbug

It’s finally the Christmas season, and I’m finally getting into the Christmas spirit. I’m not one who subscribes to Happy HallowThanksMas, and can’t abide the appearance of Santa next to jack-o-lanterns and horns of plenty. I’m perfectly fine with those who decorate their homes early; I’d just prefer not to be assaulted by skeletons and candy canes on the same end caps at grocery stores in September each year.

It’s also that time of year when I discover words that do not mean exactly what I think they mean. Bah, humbug!

Humbug

To deceive, or impose on one by some story or device. A jocular imposition, or deception. To hum and haw; to hesitate in speech, also to delay, or be with difficulty brought to consent to any matter or business.

Humbugging, or Raising the Devil by Thomas Rowlandson, 12 March 1800, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My association with the word humbug of course comes via Ebeneezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), which has absolutely no relevance to the slang definition above. Mr. Scrooge’s exclamation ‘bah, humbug!’ is itself its own slang expression that conveys “curmudgeonly displeasure,” according to dictionary.com.

What I discovered, much to my surprise, is that humbug also refers to a confection. Wikipedia dates the first record of a hard boiled sweet available in the United Kingdom in the 1820s. And as any historian will tell you, by the time something shows up in the printed record, it has likely been in existence for many years; that means many of our Regency friends likely enjoyed a humbug or two.

The sweets are striped in two different colors, and were traditionally flavored with peppermint, although many varieties are available today. They can be shaped as cylinders with rounded ends, or tetrahedrons with rounded ends (rounded ends seem to be the common denominator here). The candy made its way into pop culture, having been featured in the televised version of The Adventure of the Six Napoleons by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When Dr. Watson offers Inspector Lestrade some of the sweets in the midst of an investigation, Holmes scolds, “Watson, this is no time for humbugs!”

That one time arsenic got into the humbugs

In studying 18th and 19th century England, one finds that arsenic gets into the darnedest things: clothing, beer, and now candy. In 1858, the Bradford Sweets Poisoning involved the accidental poisoning of over 200 people – and death of twenty – when sweets were accidentally made with arsenic. It sounds suspicious, until one realizes that the high price of sugar often lead distributors to cut the amount of sugar in half or thirds, and mix in cheaper substances to sell the product to the working classes. These cheaper substances, such as limestone and plaster of Paris, were known as ‘daft’ and, while not palatable, were perfectly safe for consumption.

An operator of a sweet stall in Bradford, known to locals as “Humbug Billy,” purchased his daft from a local druggist. Due to a mistake in labeling, and the fact that the powdered daft and arsenic powder resembled each, Humbug Billy left his supplier with 12 pounds of arsenic trioxide. Even though the finished confection did look different from the usual product, the mistake still wasn’t caught during manufacturing. Forty pounds of peppermint humbugs were produced; each humbug contained enough arsenic to kill two people.

Humbug Billy began selling his sweets that night. Within a few days, the mistake was known and deaths and illnesses were rampant. All involved in the Bradford poisoning were charged with manslaughter but none were convicted; it truly was an accident in every sense of the word. The Bradford poisoning scandal did lead to new legislation to prevent future tragedies. The 1860 Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill changed the way ingredients could be used, mixed, and combined. The UK Pharmacy Act of 1868 tightened regulations on the handling and selling of poisons and medicines by druggists and pharmacists.

 

 

  • Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.
  • Need some humbugs? There are no doubt sweet shops on this side of the pond that make humbugs, but here are two I can personally vouch for across the pond: Jenny’s Homemade Sweets from Scotland (also try Edinburgh Rock and Puff Candy!) and Mrs. Beightons Sweetshop in Haworth, West Yorkshire (also try their yummy Lemon Bon Bons!).
  • Read all about Dying for a Humbug, the Bradford Sweets Poisoning 1858 at Historic UK.
  • If you’re a tweeter, be watching for the date of our #livetweet of A Christmas Carol at the end of this month. @JaneAustenDance and I live tweet various Jane Austen movies throughout the year, but thought Christmas called for this beloved classic. We simply cue up the movie, pop some popcorn, and all watch and tweet our observations together. It’s great fun!
WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Pug

WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Pug

If you’re a Regency era aficionado, the mere mention of this week’s word evokes an immediate image.

Lady Bertram and Pug, from Mansfield Park, 1999, starring Lindsay Duncan.

To the education of her daughters Lady Bertram paid not the smallest attention. She had not time for such cares. She was a woman who spent her days in sitting, nicely dressed, on a sofa, doing some long piece of needlework, of little use and no beauty, thinking more of her pug than her children, but very indulgent to the latter when it did not put herself to inconvenience, guided in everything important by Sir Thomas, and in smaller concerns by her sister.
~Mansfield Park, Chapter 2

Pug

A Dutch pug; a kind of lap-dog, formerly much in vogue.

Yelena and Alexandra Kourakine by Vladimir Borovikovsky, 1802, The Louvre.

I admit that most Pugs I have ever encountered were overweight and overindulged in every sense of the world, with owners very much like Lady Bertram (and not all of them female, mind you). As with those I know with Pugs, Lady Bertram is never far from her beloved. When her husband, Sir Thomas, returns from his trip to the Caribbean, she is excited to see him. Although she moves Pug a bit, he is not displaced by much.

By not one of the circle was he listened to with such unbroken, unalloyed enjoyment as by his wife, who was really extremely happy to see him, and whose feelings were so warmed by his sudden arrival as to place her nearer agitation than she had been for the last twenty years. She had been almost fluttered for a few minutes, and still remained so sensibly animated as to put away her work, move Pug from her side, and give all her attention and all the rest of her sofa to her husband.
~Mansfield Park, Chapter 19

Portrait of Sylvie de la Rue by François van der Donckt, 1806, Groeninge Museum, Bruges.

Mary Wollstonecraft has one of the best quotes about little dogs – and for my purposes I am going to assume she is speaking of Pugs – that I have ever come across in her book, In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Although her statement says more about the owner than the dog. She groused:

I have been desired to observe the pretty tricks of a lap-dog, that my perverse fate forced me to travel with. Is it surprising that such a tasteless being should rather caress this dog than her children? Or, that she should prefer the rant of flattery to the simple accents of sincerity?
~Chapter 12

Princess Ekaterina Dmitrievna Golitsyna by Louis-Michel van Loo, 1759, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.

The Pug is considered one of the oldest breeds in the world, documented by none other than Confucius (known as Lo-Sze in Chinese) in 551 BC. According to Georgian England’s Top Dogs, they were valued for their “small size, short coat, and their Prince Mark – three wrinkles on the forehead and a vertical bar form a marking that repeats the Chinese character for Prince.” By the early 16th century, direct trade to China brought notice of the noble Pug to Europe; they were said to have arrived in England via the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary in 1688. Unfortunately, they became the indolent discriminating discerning lady’s accessory du jour, along with an African American page boy.  As such, the popularity of the Pug as fashion statement slowly declined as the 19th century, hopefully as sensibility progressed.

The Drumplier Pugs by Gourlay Steell, circa 1867, via Wellcome Images.

But never fear! The Pug was down but not out. Queen Victoria is credited with bringing back the popularity of the breed: she kept thirty-six over the course of her reign. The first Pugs arrived in America by the end of the Civil War, and were one of the fifteen recognized breeds of the American Kennel Club in 1885. Not bad for a dog that essentially warmed laps, tickled toes, and “photo” bombed paintings of ladies.

Portrait of a Lady with her Pug Dog, Mid 19th Century German School in the style of the 16th Century, Bridgeman Images.

In my family we have a silly saying: if you can kill the dog by stepping on it, it’s not the pet for us. This likely says more about us than the appropriateness of tiny dogs. William Hogarth would no doubt reprimand our temerity, as well as stoutly disagree that Pugs were only for the ladies. He was the proud owner of several, likened their blunt faces and mannerisms to his own, and, according to Rivaat Zarlif of Sartle, had “the little gargoyles show up in lots of paintings as satirical jabs at pompous characters in his paintings.”

Self-Portrait with Pug Dog by William Hogarth, 1745, Tate Gallery, London.